State lawmakers kicked off the 2021 New Mexico legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 19. KUNM’s Nash Jones spoke with James Barron, education reporter with the Santa Fe New Mexican, to help get the lay of the land.
Barron says that education is likely to be a key issue in this year’s session as New Mexico works to meet mandates set out by the 2018 Yazzie/Martinez ruling, which determined the state had failed to provide a sufficient education to certain students, including those who are Native American, English Language Learners, or from families with low incomes. Barron says there are a number of resolutions up for discussion.
JAMES BARRON: I think the first one that really comes to mind is the joint resolution with regards to early education. Legislators are planning on using a bit of the Land Grant Permanent Fund to help fund the Early Childhood Education Department. It eases some of the need for legislators to have to provide funding from its coffers, and uses the permanent land grant to help offset some of that need.
KUNM: Any other bills come to mind in terms of education equity, or serving some of these traditionally underserved populations in New Mexico?
BARRON: [Rep.] Derrick Lente has a bill in which he's trying to beef up some of the funding for both tribal departments of education as well as trying to add some teeth into the Indian Education Act. A lot of people within the native community, and some legislators, feel that the act has not been properly funded the way it needs to be. And so, Rep. Lente has a bill out there that significantly increases funding for specific programs for the Native American community.
KUNM: And Rep. Christine Trujillo has introduced a bill around Hispanic education. Can you tell us a little bit about what that proposes to do?
BARRON: Absolutely. She's wanting to create an Assistant Secretary of Hispanic Education in the Higher Education Department, and then also create a similar position within the Public Education Department, in order to provide a little bit more of a diverse viewpoint and an advocate.
KUNM: Last month, you reported on a statewide trend of declining public school enrollment during the pandemic, which could have an impact on district budgets. And the AP reports that education accounts for about half of the state's general funds. What's the outlook for education funding this year?
BARRON: It should be about the same. There might be a slight increase in that, in terms of the overall percentage of the general budget, but I believe the Public Education Department has asked for about $3.3 billion, both for its own department as well as school districts. The issues that superintendents and administrators have been lobbying for is "hold harmless language" in the general funding bill, in which the money that school districts would be receiving for the upcoming school year – in 2021/2022 – would be based on the enrollment figures that they received from 2019/2020 given that there's been a significant decline in overall enrollment at public schools this year; about a 5% decrease across the board. Because their budgets are funded through enrollment figures, they want to see last year's numbers used.
KUNM: I see. So, then the districts would be "held harmless" for the drop in enrollment that they've seen during the pandemic?
BARRON: Absolutely. Their belief is ultimately that most if not all of those students will return to public school roles once we're in a better situation with regards to COVID-19.
KUNM: Students or potential students listening may be curious about what's happening with state funded college scholarships – the Legislative Lottery Scholarship and the newer Opportunity Scholarship, which started just in 2019. Do you know what's being proposed for those?
BARRON: As usual, there's always a couple of bills from a couple of legislators who want to see the Lottery Scholarship fully funded like it was about 20-25 years ago. I don't know if that's going to happen. I think a certain portion of in-state students will see their tuition covered. The interesting thing will be the Opportunity Scholarship. They do want to see a little bit of an increase in that. And they also want to allow part-time students, who meet at least six credit hours, to be eligible for that scholarship opportunity. A lot of community colleges or two years schools, about 75% of their student population tend to be part-time as opposed to full-time, which is what the current Opportunity Scholarship offers.
This is part of our Your NM Government project, a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter. Support for public media (NMPBS and KUNM) provided by the Thornburg Foundation.